Monday, October 25, 2010

Sermon on Luke 18:9-17, for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Who is Approved by God?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector that you heard in the Gospel reading contrasts two men who came to the Temple to pray. But the parable is more than just about teaching us the right way to pray. Jesus told this parable to a crowd of people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” This attitude is sometimes described as “Pharisee-ism.” A self-confidence in your own righteousness—thinking that you’re better than others because of what you’ve done or they haven’t. The parable that Jesus taught helps us to see why the sinful tax collector received God’s approval while the Pharisee didn’t. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When the Pharisee came to pray, it wasn’t even really a prayer that came out of his mouth. While he addressed God, it wasn’t really for any other reason than to boast about himself. Thank God I’m not like all those sinners! You and you and you and you! From his standpoint everyone looked worse than him. Why was that? Because when he came to pray he stood up on the tiny pedestal of his own works, and looked around at everybody else and concluded that he was better. He boasted of his “good works” of fasting and tithing. Certainly fasting was far better than extortion or blackmail, and tithing far better than adultery. His actions had the outward stamp of moral approval. He was a law-abiding citizen. But he wasn’t content to practice his faith and do his acts of service and worship unnoticed. He basked in his own self-glorifying light, thanking God that he was better than others.

Truly, his confidence was in his own righteousness, and when he examined his own life, he was self-assured that he deserved God’s stamp of approval. He measured his life by the failures, the sins, and the lack of religious acts of worship of others, as well as by his own self-chosen religious works. By this measuring stick he was confident that God was pleased with him, God would approve. What he was trying to do was to justify himself. To be justified is a very important Biblical term, and we often forget or confuse its meaning. It means to be declared righteous, like a judge passing a verdict of innocence in a court. It means that you’ve been found innocent of any wrongdoing. You have been tested and approved. The Pharisee was trying to justify himself or find God’s approval based on his self-righteousness. And he failed. God did not approve him, he didn’t go home justified.

When we hear this parable, and we see the smug self-satisfaction of the Pharisee, and how he looked down on others, don’t we all give a little huff of contempt and whisper to ourselves, “Boy! What a jerk! I’m glad I’m not like him! I could point out quite a few people who are like him, though.” Stop. When that little whisper in our mind is spoken out loud, do you notice something? Doesn’t it sound an awful lot like, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!”? But this reaction shows us that we are in fact just like him! When we look in smug contempt at the Pharisee, like he did at the tax collector, we’ve become just like that Pharisee.

See the Pharisees didn’t have the corner on the market of building little pedestals of self-righteousness for themselves. They’re not the only people (safely buried in the dust of history, by the way) that elevate themselves on the pedestals of their own “good works” and look down on others as being more sinful than them. Every one of us has that same inborn tendency in our heart. We’re just as good at building up those pedestals for ourselves. We want to compare ourselves with others. We feel the need to be better than someone else, so we build our expectations of others based on the good we think we have done, and then it’s easy for us to feel at least a “cut above the rest.” And it’s no escape-hatch of denial to say that, “well I never claimed to be perfect!” But we still say in our hearts, “Sure, I’m not righteous, but can’t so and so get their act together?” Or maybe it’s not so crass, but more like this: “I’m happy to be serving my Lord, I just wish the rest would.” We disguise our self-righteousness in concern for what the rest ought to be doing. You see, Jesus told this parable to me. To you. To every sinner. Not just to the easy targets of our disapproval, the Pharisees. We all have a little bit of the Pharisaical spirit in us.

So how do we break free of this? We put that old sinful nature in us to death by repenting of our sin. By confessing that we too are sinners, and laying down any pretensions of self-righteousness. Stepping down off the tiny pedestals of our good works, and comparing ourselves to no one else. In short, we become like the tax collector. You know that when the tax collector and the Pharisee said their prayers, there was one thing I noticed they had in common. They both looked down. The tax collector physically looked down because he couldn’t bear to lift up his eyes to heaven. He felt the weight of his sin too greatly. Now I know it doesn’t say the Pharisee physically looked down too, but he was clearly looking down on others. He was comparing himself to others, approving himself, and disapproving of them.

If only we can become like the tax collector and free ourselves from constantly comparing ourselves with others, to try to find approval for ourselves! Then we can cry out like the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector saw himself before God, not before other sinners. He saw that the measuring stick he had to measure up to was God’s; not his own. He saw that he had sinned and fallen woefully short of the glory of God. When we repent, let us do likewise. Put no one else in your view for comparison. Those who are confident of their own righteousness usually fail to see the sins of their heart before the presence of the Holy and Righteous God. Then we will begin to see how truly tiny our pedestals of self-made righteousness are, and how the height of God’s true righteousness soars above us. The tax collector didn’t dare to look up to that impossible height. Instead, he pleaded for God’s mercy.

What an incredible thing! I think we’ve taken the words “Lord have mercy” on our lips so often that we forget how amazing they are, that we can even know that God IS a merciful God, and that this is at the core of His identity. How could we even know that God is a merciful God, and not that He would rather destroy us all in our sin? A clue comes from the prayer of the tax collector. His cry for mercy was not the usual one found in scripture, but the fuller meaning of his cry was, “O God, make atonement for me, a sinner!” Gathered at the time for public prayer in the Temple, it’s reasonable to conclude that the Pharisee and the tax collector had seen the morning or afternoon sacrifice of a lamb that was offered twice a day in the Temple. The tax collector cried out for atonement. For God to take away his sins. So great was his grief over his sin that he struck his chest while he prayed, “O God, make atonement for me, a sinner!”

You know the one other place in the New Testament where people were so filled with remorse that they struck their chests like this? It was when they watched the perfect sacrifice of atonement, Jesus Christ, being crucified on the cross. Listen to those words from Luke 23:

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. (Luke 23:44-48)

Striking your chest was no everyday show of sadness. Seeing the innocent death of Jesus, and how He suffered without malice or contempt for others, moved those bystanders to strike their chests with grief. Finally they saw their guilt. Yet here was God making atonement for the sins of the whole world.

Like the tax collector looked for mercy, for atonement for his sin in the sacrifice that showed God’s undeserved love to forgive him, so we look to the loving sacrifice of Jesus for our sin. We can pray, “O God, make atonement for me, a sinner!” and look to the One who made that atonement. Who came down from the heights of heaven and brought perfect righteousness and innocence to give to us. He came to justify the tax collector and the sinners. He came so that he could lift the weight of sin from our shoulders, so that we can lift our eyes to heaven, not in pride, but in thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. Jesus hung on the cross with all His perfect righteousness, yet did not look down on others to condemn them, but to have mercy on them. To atone or pay for their sins. He took up our sin so that the tax collector could go home that day justified, approved by God. So that you can go home today justified, approved by God. Not because you have confidence in your own righteousness, not because you’ve found yourself better than anyone else, not even because of the humility of your prayers, but because of the faith that believes in God’s righteousness, and God’s mercy. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross that proves to us that God does have a heart of mercy, and that He is at the heart and core of His identity, a merciful God.

So we can pray that amazing prayer with confidence, “God be merciful to me—make atonement for me, a sinner!” We can know that laying all our sins down before the cross, Jesus has laid on us His righteousness. That’s what it means to be justified. That’s what it means to go home with God’s approval. Nothing of our own righteousness, imperfect, sinful, and soiled as it is. But everything of Jesus’ pure and perfect righteousness, His innocence given to you so that you can share in God’s approval. This is what it means to humble ourselves before God and be raised up and exalted by Him. God says that because you didn’t trust in yourself, but trusted in Him, in Jesus, you have His approval, even though you had nothing to deserve it in yourself.

This is a marvelously freeing truth, to know that we’re justified and approved by God by faith in Jesus. It sets us free from the foolish task of building our own pedestals of righteousness, of trying to get God’s approval on our own. It breaks us free from the sinful habit of comparing ourselves to others, using our own measuring sticks instead of being measured by God’s. It transforms our hearts from loveless looks and feelings of contempt as we look at other sinners. Instead, we’re filled with the joy and satisfaction that God has had mercy on us to make us His own, and to thankfully look to heaven and praise Him for His awesome love. We’re filled with a humility about our own sins, and a patient willingness to give others the same chance that God has given us, and to speak with them of the love and the mercy of God that takes away our sins. Who is it that is approved by God? Who is it that goes home today justified? You who put your confidence in Jesus, the merciful Savior. To Him we pray, “O God, have mercy on me—make atonement for me, a sinner.” Amen, Amen. Yes, yes, it shall be so.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. What was the problem that Jesus addressed in this parable? What were some people confident of? Luke 18:9. How did that false confidence affect how they looked at others? How is the same attitude present within us? What thoughts or actions toward others betray this sin in us?

2. Why was the prayer of the Pharisee really no prayer at all? Was he an outwardly moral man? What was his failure then? What was the “pedestal” he built up for himself, with which to look down on others? How do we build similar pedestals for ourselves?

3. Why is boasting in our own works a futile enterprise? Only other humans can possibly be impressed, not God. Romans 4:1-6; 2 Cor. 10:12, 17-18.

4. How do we break free from these sins of self-confidence in our own righteousness, or trying to justify ourselves and look down on others? 2 Cor. 10:18; Rom. 3:23-24. Psalm 51

5. Realizing that he could not ascend by himself to God’s righteousness, what did the tax collector look to instead? His prayer, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner” has the fuller sense of “make atonement for me”. Read what Jesus’ atonement for us did: 1 John 2:2; Hebrews 2:17. Instead of ascending to God’s righteousness on a ladder of our good works, how did Jesus bring God’s righteousness to us? Luke 23:44-48.

6. Instead of coming to condemn the world, for what reason did Jesus give up His life on the cross? John 3:16-18 How does this change how we regard other sinners? How do we finally become approved by God?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gospel Gaps

“Can you hear me now?” We’ve probably all heard the mildly annoying cell phone advertisements on TV and radio that claim one provider has better “coverage” then the next company. The idea is that you don’t want to be caught in gaps where there is no cell phone coverage, or where your calls might be dropped. Certainly on Maui with our high mountains, any cell phone user has experienced losing coverage on the way to Lahaina or Hana, or other “gaps” where there are no broadcast towers, or the signal is interfered with or spotty.

As I’m composing this newsletter, I’m returning from our Fall Pastor’s Conference in Minden, Nevada, where our presenter spoke about “Church Simple.” The speaker was President Randy Golter, of the Rocky Mountain District churches of our LCMS. He spoke about the simplicity of what the church is: God speaking and the church hearing. The church is created by God speaking to us in Christ, and gathering us together as His body to hear and believe His Word. The church is also tasked with speaking God’s Word to the world—proclaiming the wonders that He has done in Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection.

As President Golter was encouraging us in our mission to be a speaking church, one that speaks the gospel to the world, he proposed the metaphor of churches being like cell phone towers that broadcast the Gospel. And part of our job as Christians in God’s mission to make disciples of all nations is to look for where there are “coverage gaps” in the world. As we live in an unbelieving world, we know there are many places where people have not yet heard the living voice of the Gospel. There are “coverage gaps” where the Word of Christ is not being spoken and bringing its saving message to lost sinners. There may be places where coverage is interfered with or spotty, where obstacles to hearing the Gospel may exist. Sometimes the church itself can present an obstacle

Taking his advice to heart, I hope that we as a congregation on Maui can start to think proactively about “where are the ‘Gospel gaps’ on our island of Maui?” If our church is like a cell phone tower, broadcasting the Gospel, who isn’t hearing it? Are people listening? Even on our small island, where might people be unable to hear Christ speaking through His church? Where within our community is the gospel not being heard, and what can we do to bring that word of Christ to them? Just because our island is peppered with different churches doesn’t mean that the Gospel is reaching everyone on the island. We might have to look at a smaller scale for where those gaps are (instead of finding whole cities or communities that have no church at all). We may need to look in our workplace, our family, our neighborhood.

Are there groups of people that are isolated from the gospel because of their language? Because of their social class (perhaps in relation to ours)? Because of the color of their skin? Because they had a different religious upbringing? Because they would never set foot inside a church? There are certainly some areas where we have a strong gospel signal, and in our church and school people are regularly hearing God’s Word. In our Bible studies people hear. But how many remain far outside the hearing of God’s Word?

Once we’ve identified those gaps, how can we fill them? How can we provide better “Gospel coverage” to those gaps? It may be a matter of simply listening to a person share their problems, and offering them the comforting message of the Gospel. It may be that there is an outreach to the community that we as a congregation can offer. It may be that we can take better advantage of opportunities that are already out there. But our task is very simple—it is to be a “speaking church” that speaks God’s Word into the lives of lost, hurting, or broken sinners wherever they may be found. President Golter advised that whenever we identify those gaps where the Gospel is not being preached, we should prioritize, strategize, and implement. So this is your assignment, members of Emmanuel: start identifying those gaps! Look around you and see where and to whom the Gospel is not yet being preached. Let’s start the discussion and talk about and share what “Gospel gaps” we see in our community, and how we can increase our “Gospel coverage” to bring more people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:38)…“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sermon on 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, "God-breathed"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. “The time is coming…” the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, a young pastor. “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Well it shouldn’t take much convincing for us to realize that that time is now here. We already live in the time Paul described, where people will not listen to or tolerate sound teaching, but gather around them teachers that will say what their itching ears want to hear. Today Paul’s words to Timothy call us to make sure we are listening to the God-breathed Word of holy Scripture, which is vital for our spiritual health today. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

So are we really living in “those times” when people won’t listen to sound teaching, but chase after myths? Just like a fish isn’t aware of its watery environment, and humans or animals aren’t usually aware of the air they breathe, so also we can become unaware of our environment. If the water we’ve always been swimming in is polluted, or the air we breathe has always been polluted, we might never know it until we’ve swam in pure, fresh water, or breathed deeply of clean, fresh air. A child growing up in smoggy LA might never realize how bad the air was until they traveled to the mountains or the country and breathed the fresh air. In the same way, many people today don’t realize the polluting and corrupting influences that are part of our everyday environment. We don’t often realize how many harmful ideas and behaviors fill the “air” we breathe, until we have heard and fully embraced the truth. The world is very effective at teaching us all kinds of unhealthy things, and this instruction of the world begins incredibly early.

In an opposite way, Paul describes how for Timothy, his instruction in the Bible and the things of God began in his childhood—literally from infancy. As a side note, it’s interesting that the Greek word brephos that is translated childhood or infancy, is used to refer to both a child already born, and also to an unborn child. This is interesting because we don’t often think about the faith of an infant (born or unborn!) and the ability of God’s Word to work on them even at such a tender age. But Paul contrasts the healthy Word of God that gives life with the unhealthy false teachings and myths that people with itching ears will want to follow. People will not endure, tolerate or put up with the sound teaching of God’s Word. Again to gather some additional insight from the original Greek language, the word “sound” in v.3 is literally healthy. And that should make a lot of sense because the true doctrine or teaching of God’s Word is sound, healthy, and whole. It gives life and it gives wisdom, as this passage teaches.

By contrast, false teaching, or teaching that is inaccurate, mixed with impure and/or untrue ideas, is unhealthy and unwholesome. Like polluted water or air, it’s not healthy to drink, swim in, or breathe, although you might survive for awhile in it. A person might survive for awhile with false teaching, if they cling to the elements of truth that are mixed in with impure things, but ultimately unhealthy, false teaching puts you in spiritually bad health, which can even destroy faith.

Part of the unhealthy environment we live in today is the constant drumming into our ears that “Nothing is sacred, nothing is holy.” This might be one of the things that is most invisible to us as Americans. The statement that “nothing is sacred, nothing is holy” is largely a reaction against religion. It’s saying that nothing deserves special reverence or worship, nothing should be treated with special honor or respect. Sacred or holy means “set apart,” as for a special purpose or use. The opposite of holy is that which is common or profane, although that still won’t define what is “holy” for you. To say nothing is holy is to say that everything deserves to be treated as ordinary and common. God’s name is most highly guarded as Holy in the Bible, and to profane God’s name and use it as a curse word or use it to speak evil is one of the worst offenses against God.

Against the tide of worldly ways of thinking, against the polluting stream of disrespect for God’s holy name and the things that He has made holy, we must stand and confess that His holiness is real. That God is holy, and His Word is holy. That God makes His people holy through His Word. Our reading in v. 15 says that Timothy learned the sacred (or holy) writings from infancy, and that these holy writings—what we call the Bible or Scripture or God’s Word—that make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ. Verse 16 affirms that all Scripture is God-breathed. This holiness of the Bible is something that is lost on the world today—even lost on many who call themselves Christians. There are many who do not consider the Bible as a book set apart from all others, containing divine truth, and deserving of special honor and respect.

From the Reformation 500 years ago till now, Lutherans have always emphasized the special importance of God’s Word as Holy and above all other books, writings and teachings by using the phrase “Scripture alone” or in Latin, sola scriptura. We confess that the Bible alone is our authority for faith and life. We say with Jesus that God’s Word is Truth. All of our teachings must be conformed to God’s Word, and anything that contradicts God’s Word is unhealthy and false. We bind ourselves to God’s Word alone, to have our lives and words be examined and judged by it. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, our national church body, has from its inception in America over 150 years ago, held Scripture alone to be our authority. While the history and people of our church body have been far from perfect or sinless, we’ve held to the Holy Word of God against continually increasing pressure from both inside and outside the church to conform to the world and its lowering of the Word of God.

To various degrees, Christian churches, even Lutheran churches have been abandoning God’s Holy Word in exchange for teachings that suit their own passions. A year ago the largest Lutheran church body in the U.S. (not our own), the ELCA or Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, voted to approve the acceptance of homosexual unions as equal to marriage, and approve the ordination of homosexual pastors. One might ask how they could do this and stray so far from the truth of God’s Word, that clearly teaches homosexuality is sin. From the Bible, it’s unthinkable to elevate homosexuality to an equal level with marriage.

The way this happened in the ELCA and in so many other church bodies is that the Holy Word of God has been pushed from its place of honor and authority to become common and ordinary. Itching ears wanted new teachings that would suit our own passions and sensibilities. While they might say that the Bible contains truth, they would not affirm that all of the Bible is God’s truth. The one slogan of the Lutheran Reformation that was conspicuously missing from their official statement on accepting homosexuality was “scripture alone.” Of course they couldn’t claim that they held to Scripture alone when that very book condemns this sin. Our church, the LCMS has urged them to reverse that tragic decision, which basically elevated man’s opinion over God’s Word. Man’s ideas of right and wrong, and man’s definitions of love and sexuality were elevated to replace God’s definition of right and wrong, of love and sexuality. Man’s word was permitted to sit in judgment over God’s Word.

But God’s Word is still profitable and useful for teaching, reproving and correcting. God’s Word is still able to speak and bring hearts to repentance, and to call them back to God’s Word. Many have already rejected that new decision and called for a return to God’s Word. We in the LCMS must no less call ourselves back to God’s Word and allow everything that we believe and teach to be corrected by God’s Word. We must constantly be alert to influences that would make us gather teachers to suit our itching ears, rather than to hear the uncomfortable call to repent from our sins. God’s Word does not leave us cruising along blindly in our sins, but it disciplines or trains us in righteousness so that we are equipped for every good work. Like an athlete putting on his sports equipment and gear to be ready for competition, so also God’s Word equips us to live in righteousness and to turn away from sinful passions.

The disrespect and mistreatment of God’s word—the chasing after myths and seeking to fill our itching ears with whatever our sinful pleasures want us to hear—this is a result of losing the holy. It’s a result of the false belief that nothing is sacred or holy any more. But against that worldly tide of thinking, against the sinful desires of our own flesh to lower God’s Word and make it common or profane, we as Christians must pray “Hallowed be Thy Name” as we do in the Lord’s Prayer. Holy be Your Name. We must pray for God’s name to be kept holy. For His Word to be kept holy. That we would keep His name holy by leading holy lives, use His name purely and with honor and reverence in worship and prayer.

What makes God’s Word holy and above all other words and writings? What makes it deserving of our full respect and attention? Because “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” All Scripture is breathed out by God. God-breathed. God’s very Word is breathed out into those holy writings, as prophets and apostles of God wrote down God’s message for our teaching, for the reproof and correction of our sin, and for training us in righteousness. Scripture was not breathed out by man—it was not human imagination or cleverness that wrote it. But the Scripture is of divine origin. And since God breathed out those words, it means that the Bible is without error, and that it has eternal significance. As Jesus said, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).

But to know that God is holy and that His Word is holy puts us as sinners in a dangerous place. In our sinfulness, we would be consumed by God’s holiness. We would be like oil in the presence of fire. But God did not give us His Holy Word to destroy us, but that by His Holy Word He might purify us and communicate His holiness to us. God’s Word comes to us like fresh air and pure water that refreshes us in a sinful and polluted world. We should crave and desire the truth of God’s Word, because in it we discover freedom and cleansing in Jesus Christ, and are made wise for salvation by faith in Him. Jesus shines forth as the highlight and center of the God-breathed words of Scripture. We come to Jesus sinful and unclean, confessing that we have not done what is right, and that we have sinned. He died for our sin on the cross. Here is the salvation or rescue that we find in God’s Word. God’s Holy Word brings us this message that Jesus forgives our sin from in His cross. Only once we have been purified from sin by the forgiveness of Jesus, can we share in the holiness of God and one day approach His presence without fear of death. God’s Holy Word brings us His holiness so that we will be healthy, sound and whole on the day of Jesus’ appearing and with His kingdom to judge the living and the dead. Dear heavenly Father, Holy God, we pray that you would keep us holy in your Word, and that you would bless us to always keep your Name and your Word holy among us, to make us wise for salvation in Jesus Christ. In His name we pray, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. What evidence do you see that we are living in the times that Paul described in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, where people will turn away from the truth and sound teaching, to listen to what their itching ears want to hear? What are the things that your ears itch to hear, even when you know that they are not true or right?

2. How can it happen that we become unaware of the sinful influences of our world? How early is it ideal for us to begin instructing children in God’s Word? 2 Tim. 3:15; Psalm 71:5-6

3. Why is “sound teaching” or doctrine “healthy”? How is false teaching unhealthy? 1 Timothy 1:8-11; 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 2:1

4. What does God say is holy? Leviticus 22:2; Exodus 31:14; Rom. 7:12. If God alone is holy, how is His holiness communicated to us? 1 Cor. 3:17; 1 Peter 1:15. What is the holy and proper use of God’s name? Ex. 20:7; Matthew 6:9

5. What does it mean that Scripture is “God-breathed”? 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:16-21; John 17:17. How have people within the Christian church lowered God’s Word to suit their itching ears? How have we done it ourselves? What sins do we desire to “protect” by trying to hide them from God’s judgment? What does it mean to hold to “Scripture alone?”

6. What four things is Scripture useful for in 2 Tim. 3:16-17? How is God’s word eternal? Matt. 24:35; 1 Peter 1:25.

7. How does God’s Word forgive us and make us holy, so that we can see the holy God? 1 John 1:7; Matt. 5:8; John 17:17

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Preschool Sunday, "Have Mercy on us!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Welcome again to Emmanuel, and thanks to our preschoolers for their memory work and song, and for parents and family supporting your children as they worship God. Today’s sermon is from the story of the ten leprous men who were healed, and the one who returned to give thanks to Jesus. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Although it’s a few thousand years from the time of Jesus, and many thousands of miles from Israel to Hawaii, the circumstances of ten leprous men aren’t so distant and unfamiliar to us here in Hawaii. The leper colony at Kalaupapa is part of the recent memory of Hawaii, although in Bible times the word leprosy included a much broader range of skin diseases and rashes than what we now call Hansen’s disease. For about 100 years, people suffering from Hansen’s were banished to an existence of poverty and isolation. One woman exiled to Kalaupapa wrote about how she was eventually healed of the disease, and wanted to come home, even if just to see her birthplace. But her own mother wouldn’t allow her to come home, telling her to stay in Kalaupapa. Like in ancient times, people feared the spread of this disfiguring disease, and didn’t even want to look upon such suffering. Before a modern cure was developed, no one knew how to stop its spread, except through quarantine. The law in the Old Testament was that people with leprosy had to live outside the community and wear torn clothes, cover their face and cry out, “Unclean, Unclean!” to those who would approach them (Lev. 13:45-46). In both ancient and modern times, they bore the stigma of being an outcast in addition to their quarantine for reasons of both health and fear.

While we can probably understand the fear and unwillingness to see suffering, we recognize that it’s inhumane; incompatible with compassion. It’s common and easy for us to turn away from suffering. Not to look at or think about the fate of the weak and vulnerable, the poor, the starving, the unborn, or the terminally ill. But compassion doesn’t hide its eyes from suffering, but instead wakes up the heart to show mercy. What is compassion? What is mercy? It’s undeserved kindness. It’s love in action, helping to relieve the situation of one who’s in need. If we cannot provide physical relief to a person who is ill, we can at least give them comfort and spiritual relief through love and prayer. When the ten leprous men cried out in a loud voice, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” Jesus immediately acted with compassion. Their cries for mercy didn’t go unanswered. How often had they cried for help, and received only silence or felt the stigma of being outcasts?

While the cry of “Lord have mercy!” seems natural for someone who has leprosy, perhaps we don’t realize how those words belong on our lips as well. That even if most of us are healthy and whole in our bodies, we stand before God just as much needing mercy. Some of us may cry out for physical healing, others may have emotional wounds and guilt that we bear, we may be poor or lonely or outsiders, but we all have a far worse condition that requires God’s mercy. We all must cry out to Jesus for mercy from our sins. Whatever other things there may be in our life that cause us to cry out to God for mercy, the one thing that we all share in common is our sinfulness and the need to be forgiven. We sin daily as we confessed today at the beginning of service. We have sinned in our thoughts, our words, and our actions. We have sinned by doing what we know is wrong, and we have sinned by failing to do good when we should have. We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. For all this we deserve God’s punishment now and forever. But God is faithful and just to forgive us if we confess.

The leprosy of sin is the one sickness that has a 100% fatality rate. Sin cannot be healed with medicines or rituals, it cannot be lifted like a social stigma. Sin is the most deeply rooted infection of the soul. Sin always leads to death, and Jesus’ forgiveness is the only cure. So we’re right to cry together with the ten men, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” We can be just as confident that He does love us and desires for us to be healed. What’s the cure and the healing from sin? It’s the death of Jesus on the cross, where He suffered and became the outcast, bearing all our diseases and guilt, so that by His death He would destroy them. By His death He destroyed the power that sin holds over our lives, and by His resurrection He opened the way for our bodies to be raised up and restored to new life in the final resurrection on the Last Day.

When Jesus sent the ten leprous men on their way to the priests, it was to obey the Law and show themselves to the priests who’d see if they were healed. If they were clean from their leprosy, they would make offerings to God, and could be welcomed back into the congregation or the gathering of Jewish worshippers. This would mark their full entrance back into the community, their freedom from the disease and stigma of being outcasts, and a return to normalcy. But one of the ten could not return to the congregation of believers, because he bore the double stigma of being a leper and a Samaritan. While he could be declared clean by the priest, Samaritans were unwelcome in the Jewish community. Who were the Samaritans? They were the mixed-blood ancestors of the Israelites, and there was basically a long standing history of hatred between the two. The Samaritans had mixed the worship of idols together with the worship of the True God. Samaritans and Jews had fought and mistreated each other. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews, and were unwelcome.

But the surprise of the story is that this foreigner, this outsider who was doubly stigmatized as a leper and a Samaritan, was the only one who truly recognized who Jesus really was—the Son of God, the Savior. We’d expect that the nine Jewish lepers, of all people, would know to return and give thanks to God for their healing. Yet they forgot to even give thanks. But here, a Samaritan man, was so filled with joy, so ecstatic about being healed, that he came back praising God with a loud voice. He wasn’t ashamed to sing it out loud with joy for what God had done for him, and he fell at the feet of Jesus and worshipped Him. His joyful and thankful response for his healing is like the words of the Psalmist who wrote in praise to God: “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again…My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed” (Ps. 71:20, 23). Truly the Samaritan had seen much trouble and despair in his life, but Jesus brought him to life and hope, so the Samaritan truly had reason to shout for joy and sing praises to Jesus for what He had done.

So also we should follow the Samaritan’s example in falling at the feet of Jesus and praising and thanking Him for what He has done for us. Jesus is truly deserving of our worship as He is the Son of God, and had the miraculous power to heal diseases at the very power of His Word. May we never be ungrateful or ashamed of the great wonders that Jesus has done for us, by bringing us healing from the power of sin, and raising us to new life. Just as the Psalmist sang, “My soul also you have redeemed,” so the Samaritan received more than physical healing that day. He was joyful because of his instant recovery from the terrible disease of leprosy, but when he came back to Jesus, we find that there was even more to his healing. Jesus praised this outsider, this Samaritan for returning and giving thanks to God, saying, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

If you look in the footnotes of most Bibles, it will show you that it literally says in the original language, “Your faith has saved you.” Your faith has saved you. His faith did more than just heal him, as the other nine were also cleansed. But the Samaritan alone had faith, and so received the gift of salvation. What do I mean by faith? That he trusted and knew Jesus as the One who could heal him, and recognized Him as the Son of God by worshipping Him. More important to him than rushing to the priest to be declared clean, was to give thanks to God who had healed him. He believed in Jesus, his merciful master. As I said before, being saved from our sins is the greater miracle, and the one that is offered to every one of us here today. When we cry out, “Master, have mercy on us,” Jesus is eager to answer and show undeserved kindness to us, whoever we are and whatever stigmas or sins we bear.

The healing miracles of Jesus are a sign for us that He truly was God and held power over life and death. Even more than that they show how Jesus takes all of our uncleanness on Himself. One of the required rituals of cleansing for a person who had been healed of leprosy was to discard any infected garments and burn them, or thoroughly wash what was dirty. When they were cleansed in their body, they were also clothed again with clean clothes. In a similar way, the New Testament describes Baptism as our washing and cleansing. In baptism Jesus cleanses us and forgives us from our sin. He did not look away from us, but had compassion and cleansed us of the impurity of sin. He removes all the dirty garments of our sin, and in His death for us on the cross, He wore all those rags Himself. Not literal clothes, but our sins. Jesus became the very person of an outsider, left rejected, stigmatized, and alone, to die outside the city, just like the lepers were banished outside the camp. Treated like someone unclean and contaminated. But He became sin so that in our baptism He could clothe us afresh with the clean and holy garments of His innocence. That as we’re cleansed in conscience and soul from our sin, so also we can be clothed with His holiness and innocence, restored, forgiven and whole.

The cleansing of the leprous man was also a picture of baptism in that in baptism we’re born again. The lepers went from having a body that was in an advanced stage of disease and decay, to a body that was restored with clean and healthy skin, almost like a newborn. They experienced a rebirth. In baptism, Jesus says we’re born again. Not in a physical way, but in the washing of the water and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who gives us faith, by which we’re saved. So also in our baptism we’re born again from the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we’re a new creation. We’re lifted up with joy and thanksgiving to return our thanks and praise to God for what He has done, and also to have hearts of compassion alive within us, that also look to the needs and hurts of others. Our eyes cannot remain closed to suffering, but just as Jesus has done for us, so will we be moved to show mercy. And there’s no greater relief that we can give than to point a hurt and lost soul to Jesus Christ, the Master whose grace shows no boundaries, who does not hide His eyes from our suffering, and has mercy on all who cry out to Him by faith. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. What do you know about the experience of people with leprosy in recent times, such as those on Kalaupapa? How was it similar or different from Bible times?

2. What did the law of Moses require for lepers, in terms of their isolation? Leviticus 13, esp. vs. 45-46. Their cleansing and return to the community? Leviticus 14. How were the priests involved?

3. Contrast inhumane and compassionate ways of dealing with those who suffer serious illnesses or are outcasts. What are some ways that people try to hide suffering from their eyes today? How does compassion shape our response to suffering? Matthew 5:7

4. Who should cry out “Lord have mercy?” and why? Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 20:30-31; Mark 10:47-48; Luke 18:13. Romans 11:30-36. What sins have you committed, in thought, word, or deed? What wrong have you done? What good have you left undone? What is the fatality rate for sin?

5. Why would the Samaritan not have been welcomed into the worshipping Jewish community, even though he was healed? How should we show kindness and welcome to even those who seem as “outsiders”? Where did he find acceptance instead? Reread Luke 17:15-19.

6. What was the response of the Samaritan at being healed? How is this an example for us to follow? Psalm 71:20-23. More than just bodily healing, what else did he receive by faith? Luke 17:19.

7. How is this physical & spiritual cleansing a picture of baptism? How are we “reclothed” in baptism? Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:9-10. How are we reborn? John 3:1-8; Titus 3:5-7. Whose innocence do we now wear?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Sermon on Luke 17:1-10, for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "Increase Our Faith!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel reading contains a few basic teachings about discipleship, or what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Although it was especially the teaching about forgiveness that caused the apostles to respond to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”—each one of these teachings will challenge our faith. So let our prayer today and always be: “Lord, Increase our Faith!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus begins by pointing out that it’s unavoidable that temptations to sin will come. Jesus isn’t saying that temptation itself is unavoidable, because we’re promised that when we’re tempted, God is faithful not to let us be tempted beyond our ability to bear it. There will never arise a situation where we simply cannot help but give in. God will always provide a way of escape, so that we can endure it (1 Cor. 10:13). C.S. Lewis wrote about this Bible passage in his book the Screwtape Letters, and said that many Christians fail by giving into temptation—just before the way of escape is made visible. How often do we persuade ourselves that the temptation really was so severe we just couldn’t help ourselves? But there always is a way out, even if we’re unwilling to see it or attempt it. We often forget how strongly sin aligns itself with our own pleasures and desires, and it becomes the path of least resistance.
So Jesus didn’t say that it’s impossible for us to resist temptation, but that in a sinful world, it will be inevitable that they arise. But lest we think that there’s nothing we can do about it, and there’s no use avoiding it, Jesus says “Woe to the one through whom temptation comes!” Jesus pronounces the more serious judgment against the one who causes temptation, especially to those who cause temptation for “these little ones.” This obviously includes children (cf. Matt. 18:6), who are especially vulnerable to being misled. However, not only children are vulnerable to temptation, but people who’re new believers also face increased temptation to fall away. People of any age, who aren’t deeply rooted in their faith, can be easy victims of temptation. So our prayer should also be “increase our faith!” Jesus warns that the one who causes temptation, who deliberately leads all these “little ones” to slip and fall by temptation—their fate will be worse than the person dropped into the sea with a millstone around their neck.
If left unchecked, lives are ruined by sin, as Jesus’ teaching shows. Those who lead people into it face a dreadful fate. Those who’re led astray by temptation may fall into hardship and danger. And so Jesus puts a “check” against sin by warning those who’d cause others to stumble. He puts another “check” against sin by telling us that we must pay attention to ourselves (lest we become the cause of sin) and another by saying that we must rebuke our brother if they sin. We shouldn’t stand by idly if a fellow brother or sister in Christ is sinning. If we wouldn’t remain silent if someone was about to hurt themselves physically—like grabbing a pot that they didn’t know was burning hot, or walking over fallen electric wires—neither should we remain silent if they are running into far more serious spiritual harm.
Admittedly this is very difficult in practice—but that doesn’t excuse us from doing it. If we’re truly concerned for the well-being of our family or friends, we should speak up when they are cruising dangerously down the wrong path. We just might be able to turn them back from their wandering, and “save their soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). But Scripture also gives us some cautions about doing this, because there’s the danger of becoming judgmental and seeking to find faults with everyone. There’s the danger of self-righteousness. There’s the danger of falling into the same sins we’re helping them from. So this is the caution the Bible gives: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who’re spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” and also, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:1,3).
So the cautions are that when we rebuke sin, or show strong disapproval, that we also do it out of love and gentleness. And those two are compatible. A parent, for example, can show unconditional love for their erring child, while at the same time expressing disapproval of their actions and not helping to sponsor or enable them in doing wrong. To do so in a spirit of gentleness reminds us that we shouldn’t be overly harsh, which may only drive the person away or further into their sin. All the while we must maintain a deep sense of humility and repentance of our own sins, so that we don’t begin to deceive ourselves by becoming puffed up with pride or superiority. Rather we urge our brothers or sisters in Christ as equals who stand under the same law and authority of God, with the goal of bringing them to repentance.
Here Jesus shows how great God’s mercy is, by showing us the greatness and importance of forgiveness. Stop for a moment and consider why Christian preaching so frequently returns to the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the heart and center of the kingdom of God, because forgiveness is essential to checking the power of sin. Jesus’ forgiveness releases us from the slavery of sin and death, which is why forgiveness belongs in the Christian community and must be continually practiced between ourselves and others. Sin leads to many consequences, great and small, in the physical and also spiritual realm. Forgiveness can break sin’s power by taking away the guilt, the spiritual consequences, healing the shame, etc. What would happen if we stopped forgiving? Sin’s power would remain unchecked and as people continued to wrong one another, grudges would build. Wounds wouldn’t heal. Relationships would suffer and break. If people do not forgive, trust will break down and communities will become fragmented and suspicious. Feelings of anger and revenge would ferment in people’s hearts. We’d descend deeper into our bondage or slavery to sin.
So just as God in Jesus Christ has so greatly forgiven us, we’re also to forgive others. Jesus shows how far this is to go by saying that even if our brother sins against us 7 times in one day and repents 7 times, we must still forgive him. Our sinful nature likes to quantify things though, and we like to establish the minimums and maximums of our behavior. We’d like to take this and say, “Fine! I’ll forgive him seven times, and no more. And I’m keeping track!” But elsewhere when Peter asked if 7 times was enough times to forgive his brother (thinking that to be very generous), Jesus replied, No, seventy times seven. Jesus showed there’s no limit to how many times we’re called to forgive. Can you imagine if God operated that way? That He kept a record of sins? The Psalmist, considering such a thought, said: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). We daily exceed 7 sins against God, easily, if we measure sins of thought, word, and deed. Yet God continually forgives us when we repent and turn to Him for mercy. So Jesus isn’t establishing any sort of quota, but is rather teaching us of the generous nature of forgiveness that doesn’t stop from forgiving the repentant sinner.
The apostle’s response to Jesus is the same thought in our own hearts: “Increase our faith!” We see that we’re not up to this task on our own. To have someone sin the same sin against you seven times in one day goes beyond trying your patience. It stirs up all kinds of negative responses in us, from anger, to grudges and desire for revenge, unwillingness to forgive, and even worse, hatred. Again, sin is a powerful force if left unchecked, and can abound to all kinds of other harmful effects. But we plead that we don’t have the strength, patience or love to forgive. True! But when we pray: “Increase our faith!” God is most willing to answer. In fact, giving the good gift of the Holy Spirit is one of the things that God most desires to give to us (Luke 11:13). God will strengthen and increase our faith; in fact that is the only way we’ll finally be able to show such great mercy and forgive each other so often. Yet as I said before, forgiveness is a crucial part of the Christian community.
Finally, Jesus continues His teaching on the challenges of discipleship by giving the example of a servant who worked all day in the fields—and how he shouldn’t then expect to come home and have his master prepare and serve him dinner. But first the servant is required to make the master’s meal and serve him, and only then afterward eat and drink. So the servant doesn’t receive thanks for doing his duty, what was commanded of him. Rather, we like the servant, after we’ve done all we were commanded, should say: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” In other words, the disciple does not carry out his duties, or obey God and seek to do good, in the expectation of God’s applause or that God will be waiting to reward us for our work.
As one of my professors summarized this: “The fact is that Christians do extraordinary things, things that others do not do. Christians love more. Christians give more. Christians put up with more. Christians forgive the unforgivable. And now comes the clincher. Even if we do all these things, we are still unprofitable servants. Don’t expect God to say ‘thank you’. We all like to be honored, but this Gospel says that there are no honors in God’s kingdom, not even for preachers.” He points out that “The moment we become proud of ourselves, proud of what we have done, or even proud of our faith, we are denying salvation by grace.”..... “Faith is not self-admiration.” Rather, we are to do all our duty faithfully and responsibly, without thinking that we have earned any credit or approval before God. Faith doesn’t look at ourselves and our record of good works, but faith finds our full and complete approval in God’s eyes through Jesus Christ. Faith grabs onto Christ as the one and only reason we find approval from God.
Avoiding sin and temptation, rebuking others from sin in an attitude of humility, turning away from sin ourselves, forgiving our brother 7 times a day, and doing all this without expecting that we deserve something in return? If it seems too great a task, and it is greater than we can accomplish—then pray “Increase our faith!” God will grant us to do even more than this—even the impossible is possible for those who have faith like a mustard seed. Faith is as powerful as the object in which it trusts—and if our trust is in the true and living God, there is no task to great for us.
But should we still feel a sense of unfairness that we’re still but unworthy servants, let us stand together as Christians each week under the foot of the cross and contemplate the thankless suffering that Jesus endured there. Again, borrowing the words of my professor: “think of one servant who never raised any objections to what was asked of Him. He never complained. Though He was God, He did not use His prerogative as God for His own benefit. He did not boast. But…when He found Himself as a servant among servants, a slave among slaves, a human being among human beings, He humbled Himself unto death, and this death was not an ordinary death, but one by crucifixion. At that point, God lifted Him up and gave Him a name that is superior to all other names. At the name of Jesus every knee bows in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Standing before His cross might make it easier for us to say that after we have done all things, we are unprofitable servants.” Looking to the one truly worthy servant who suffered so greatly without complaint may return us to thankfulness and awe at the great salvation that was purchased for us. So great a cost to Him, yet free for us. Let us thank our Lord Jesus for His most worthy act of service. Thanks be to God, in Jesus’ name, Amen. (pray) Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. Why is “Lord, increase our faith!” a fitting prayer for this section in Luke 17:1-10 on discipleship? How is your faith challenged, stretched, and strengthened by these words?

2. Why is temptation so serious? What promise are we given about temptation? 1 Corinthians 10:13. What strong warning against creating temptations does Jesus give? Luke 17:1-2. Who are the “little ones?” Matt. 18:6; cf. 1 Tim. 3:6; Luke 8:13-14.

3. What “checks” does Jesus put against sin and its power? What instructions and also cautions are given about rebuking sin? See Rom. 1:32-2:3; Galatians 6:1-3; 1 Timothy 5:1, 20; James 5:19-20; Matt. 18

4. Why is forgiveness central to the Christian proclamation? Matt. 26:28; Luke 24:47; Acts 13:38 Why is it essential that it be practiced in the Christian community? Matt. 18; Galatians 5:15; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. Briefly picture for yourself a community without forgiveness. Then with forgiveness.

5. Why is Jesus not establishing a “quota” when He says to forgive 7 times a day? Why should we not keep a “record”? Instead of trying to just “cover our bases” what should our attitude be? Matt. 18:21-22, see again 2 Cor. 5. What if God kept a record of sins? Psalm 130:3

6. How does God respond to the prayer: “Increase our faith?” Luke 11:13.

7. Does a servant deserve thanks for merely doing his duty? How can we more greatly appreciate the unworthiness of our work, and the greatness of the undeserved love we have received? Isaiah 53:7